Abell Salutes: Women’s Housing Coalition

August 2008 / Salutes / Environment

For creating a “beautiful quilt” of the lives of homeless, low- or no-income women.

“I think of Women’s Housing Coalition (WHC) as a quilt, with each of our women making up a patch within it,” says Joann Levy, executive director of Women’s Housing Coalition. “Each patch, each life, is different, one from the other. But together, they make up a beautiful quilt.”

The WHC that Ms. Levy is describing is dedicated to providing safe, affordable housing and support services to homeless and low-income women and families in Baltimore City who are suffering from physical disabilities, mental health issues, and/or chemical addiction, but at the same time, are committed to work toward personal growth and independence.

Since 1979 more than 1,000 needy women have benefited from WHC residential and services support, which includes case management, advocacy, and life skills training. Here are the stories of three of them, three patches in Ms. Levy’s quilt…

• • •

Lisa is a 36-year-old African American whose life story took her on a 20- year, trouble-laden journey from Chester Street in East Baltimore to 111 East 25th Street—where at long last she was able to stabilize her turbulent life and start all over again, at Women’s Housing Coalition.

After graduating from Randallstown High, she found herself working in the Job Corps program in West Virginia. Things seemed to go downhill from there. She was victimized by what she still refers to as a “domestic life that turned into a disaster,” complicated by bouts of depression. Following her partner (and running from him at the same time) she had to move to half a dozen small towns in Maryland on the Eastern Shore, then to North Carolina, when, down on her luck and out of options, she moved back to Baltimore. She found herself homeless and with a daughter seven-and-a-half years old— jobless, homeless, penniless. She was able to get temporary refuge in Christ Lutheran church, which gave her shelter and board for herself and her child, and then made contact for her with Women’s Housing Coalition—and it was there that she was able to turn her life around.

Women’s Housing Coalition provided room and board for Lisa and her daughter — along with generous amounts of counseling. Today, Lisa leads a stable life, living in WHC’s scattered housing and is only a few months away from getting an associate’s degree in Criminal Justice— which, with luck, will get her placed in a job that will allow her and her daughter to be self-sufficient. Lisa says, “It has been a long journey. But Women’s Housing Coalition helped me every step of the way. But I  know that with every step, I am further along. I know I am making it.”

• • •

Monica, a 36-year-old African American, wants you to know: “There is no piece of paper long enough to hold the number of times I have been in and out of prison for using and distributing drugs. But that was the only life I knew, and so that was all I did. Until I found Women’s Housing Coalition.

“But that was a long time coming into my life.”

A 12-year-old Monica, who had drifted into the neighborhood drug culture in West Baltimore, dropped out of Dr. Martin Luther King Middle School in the sixth grade. She says, “On the street, I bought drugs. I got high on drugs. I sold drugs. I did that for 18 years. I was in and out of every prison around here. I have been on probation and off probation. Every time I got out of prison, I was sent back—for using drugs and selling drugs. That was the only thing I knew how to do. And here I am now, clean, living comfortably, working at a good job, and alive. That’s what Women’s Housing did for me.

“Along the way I had been a four-time loser, a six-time loser, I can’t even count. Through the court system I wound up in the Drug Court program, living at Safe House on Randall Street, and after some time they sent me to Women’s Housing Coalition. With lots and lots of counseling and psychiatric help, I’ve been clean for six years now. I am close to getting my GED. I am manager at McDonalds. Manager!

“Women’s Housing has taught me to live life on life’s terms. I carry a lot of baggage. If it weren’t for the Coalition, I would be in prison.

Lisa thinks a moment.

“Or dead.”

Another patch in Ms. Levy’s quilt.

• • •

Fontella, a 37-year-old African American in the uniform of a Hopkins Security guard, shows you a plastic card that reads “Security Guard, Certification.” That card is more than a simple credential to do security work; it is, to Fontella, like a diploma from Harvard earned by traveling a very long and bumpy road. “Looking back,” she says, “though I was never in prison, I was always on crack, from the time I was seven years old. And no matter how many times I quit, that is how many time I went back on it.” The certification tells you where her life is now—stable, comfortable, safe, full of promise. But if you knew how she lived for some 35 years until she got to this point, you would not have bet on her. Crack held her in a vise from which, she was absolutely convinced, there was no escape.

But, escape she did.

Though she spent her early life dirt poor on the Eastern Shore and on crack, she somehow managed to graduate high school and work—mostly in Burger Kings and gas stations. But from there, her life was a series of “bad things happening,” all under the power and influence of crack, abusive boyfriends, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, an erratic pattern in the workplace, homelessness, living in shelters—“several on Park Heights, the Salvation Army, the YWCA, the Red Cross, the Jude House. The state took my children!” That is when, on a day about five years ago, a day she will never forget, when, world-weary and “ready to die but scared of dying” from a life on crack, she called her brother living in Baltimore. She said to him, she recalls, “Come get me. I’m tired. And I am so tired of being so tired.”

And that is when she finally entered the Women’s Housing Coalition.

Under the guidance of a WHC case manager, Fontella began a program that would transform her life. She was placed in tutorials that determined her strengths and how to expand them and make use of them in job placement; she was taught how to write a job resume, how to bring her computer skills up to marketable level, and how to manage her finances. The Fontella that graduated WHC had come a long way from the Fontella who had entered some years earlier.

And that is why Fontella, now smartly uniformed and full of self confidence, can present her “Security Card, Certification”— identifying herself, and reconfirming, too, she says, “the power of Women’s Housing Coalition to transform a life.”

• • •

The WHC was founded in 1979 by a group of women who after conducting extensive research learned that homeless women were invisible in the community. Ms. Levy says, “They were instrumental in drafting and lobbying successfully for the first Model Emergency Shelter Bill in Maryland in 1990. The Calverton was one of the first Low Income Housing Tax Credit buildings in Maryland, placed in service in 1990, and now, 18 years later, it serves about 90 women and 30 children per year.

WHC estimates that it costs between $4,000 and $6,000 per year, depending on the services, to serve each client. This includes the tenant portion of the rent.

As for “results,” Ms. Levy says, “the WHC views success as a continuum not an end. Residents are considered ‘successful’ as they continue to accomplish the goals they set up on entry to the program. With that said, we put our success rate at 90 percent.”

WHC has a staff of ten, plus a grant writer and events planner on contract; executive director, program director, four case managers, property manager, accountant, an office manager for The Calverton where our main office is located and a building manager for The Susanna Wesley House, WHC’s Family Program.

• • •

The Abell Foundation salutes Women’s Housing Coalition, executive director Joann Levy and program director Eleanor Fried, for creating a beautiful quilt of the lives of low-income and no- income homeless women.